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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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What If I Choose You To Be Legally Responsible For Me? – By Marilia Duque

ShireenWalton8 January 2018

In 2002, Brazil adopted the World Health Organization guidelines for ageing societies, which protects people over 60 from violence and discrimination, addressing key issues as health, food, education, culture, sports, leisure, work and citizenship. Indeed, the Brazilian Public Health System (SUS) is accessible to everyone. But outside the state health service, the law enshrined in the National Policy for the Elderly sees elderly welfare as a responsibility of “the family, the community, the society and the state”. In other words, the family is also viewed as the primary institution legally responsible for people over 60.

For example, people over 60 are supposed to live with their families, and the state will only intervene when relatives provide evidences that they cannot afford this responsibility. The same applies to nourishment. But the National Policy for the Elderly goes even further. By law, people over 60 can sue their grown-up children to enforce this legal responsibility. If they have more than one child, they can also decide which of them will take on the onus of care. If you are selected, you can sue your brothers or sisters to try to enforce their share in this responsiblity. In most cases however, it will be a lost cause.

My grandmother and me

The National Policy for the Elderly understands that people over 60 can nominate who will become responsible for paying for this support, and it includes choosing just one of their children. If their children don’t have sufficient incomes or are deceased, grandchildren,brothers and even nephews can be nominated, too. Kinship has traditionally been a core topic within anthropology. But in this case, Brazilian law gives it a quite unique dimension – which I will explore during my ethnography of middle-age.

– Marilia Duque

Goods For All Ages – By Xinyuan Wang

XinyuanWang27 December 2017

November was not traditionally known as a month for bustling festivals in China. That was, until a few years ago, when Alibaba – the Chinese retail giant – created a trademark ‘double 11’ online shopping day. The remarkable e-shopping festival (November 11) that resulted was adapted from an obscure ‘anti-Valentine’s’ singles’ day (guang gun jie) among young single persons in mainland China, who had picked that date because 11/11 resembled single individuals. One might hope that shopping would compensate for their lack of a partner. This year’s double 11 shopping day established a new world record with sales of $17.8bn (£14.2bn) in 24 hours.

As a digital anthropologist, my interest is in the social side of this business phenomenon. Among my WeChat friends from the previous Why We Post project, I can see charts, like the one displayed here, that rank my contacts in terms of how much money they have spent, and how many items they have purchased. People are not shy, it seems, about talking about money and their shopping practices on social media.

Older people are not immune to this. For example, 62-year-old Ms Zhang posted a photo of her new air-filter machine and wrote,

Young people are just crazy in the double 11 festival. My daughter-in-law is really ridiculous, she bought a very expensive air-filter for me even though she knew I already had two. She always spends a lot of money on me, and I always say I am old now, dont need so many new things. But she never listened.

Ms Zhang’s ‘complaint’ invited a string of complements such as “Your daughter-in-law is such a filial (xiao shun) daughter! I envy you. Just take it easy and enjoy a happy life!” or “My son did exactly the same, he just filled my flat with all kinds of new stuffs he bought in double 11. But I think we should just accept the filial piety (yi pian xiao xin) from them! After all we spent money on them the great part of our life, its time for them.

The way this shifts commercial activity into issues of intergenerational relations shows its potential value for my new project on the impact of smartphones among the middle class and middle aged of Shanghai. The study of the smartphone and related digital use is an illuminating starting point for me to understand the daily social life of an urban ageing population in China. Are there other ways in which the smartphones become pivotal in linking kinship with spending, that build on traditional anthropological studies of the gift economy? Can we use smartphones studies to build a picture of the contemporary family in Shanghai? I have sixteen months to find out.

– Xinyuan Wang